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Million Mutinies in Pakistan's Tribal Areas

Ashok K. Behuria is Senior Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 27, 2006

    The tribal terrain in Pakistan is in a state of turmoil. As the Pakistani Taliban gradually emerge, many analysts have pointed out that the terrain has traditionally been home to orthodoxy over the centuries and nourished rebels like Sayiid Ahmad, Faqir of Ippi, Nek Muhammad, Abdul Mehsud and now Mullah Dadullah. The entire area stretching from the Khyber Pass till Chaman in the south across Waziristan and eastward up to Peshawar in Pakistan has remained immune to change, both because of lack of will on the part of the government to extend its writ to these areas and the unwillingness of the local people to abandon their tribal mode of existence.

    While the Taliban have hit the headlines, certain other groups posing as counterfoils to the Taliban have received scant attention. In fact, the Deobandi-Barelvi dimension in the tribal belt has been comparatively understudied. The traditional intra-sectarian fault-lines among a variety of Islam-pasand groups in the Tribal Areas have erupted in recent years and are posing serious internal security challenges for Islamabad. The year-long clashes between two rival Mullah groups in Bara in the Khyber agency of Pakistan best illustrates this development.

    For much of 2004 and 2005 groups like Amar Bilmaroof Wanahi Anilmunkar (ABWA) - which literally means promotion of virtue and prevention of vice - fought against the Barelvi-Pirano groups in the Khyber agency. These rival groups run their own FM radio stations and mobilise popular support through active propaganda. In fact, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) reports that there are about 62 illegal FM stations in settled areas, while 49 others operate from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Provincially-Administered Tribal Areas (PATA). The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimates that there are 67 illegal FM radio stations operating from various seminaries and mosques controlled by local Mullahs in Upper and Lower Dir, Swat, Malakand, Buner, Shangla and Swabi, Bara, Wari, Usheri Darra, Jabar and Barawal Banday.

    Since it is very cheap to establish a radio station (about ten to fifteen thousand rupees), it has been difficult to effectively stop the practice. Super-orthodox Mullahs have found these radio centres convenient tools to air their views on the Quran (Dars-i-Quran) and have, through their sermons, poured venom against one another, provoking armed encounters among these groups, sometimes within the separate khels (sub-tribes) of the same tribe. This has disturbed the peace of the area and baffled the Pakistani security establishment.

    The most recent case involves a tussle between Mufti Shakir and Pir Saifur Rahman at Bara, a few kilometres from Peshawar in Khyber agency. In 2004, the two Maulanas had established separate FM stations and their sermons began to progressively assume intense sectarian contours. By September 2005, the verbal duel between the Maulanas over the FM radio transmissions had crossed the limits of civility.

    Pir Saif hails from Samangan province of Afghanistan and had settled down in Bara Tehsil. He is one of the many Pirs who had shifted to Pakistan during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Mufti Shakir is a Khattak and hails from Karak district of the NWFP. He first shifted to Sadda Tehsil of Kurram agency, where his involvement in Shia-Sunni sectarian riots led to his expulsion by the authorities. He then migrated to Bara and settled down there.

    It is interesting to note that the two Mullahs were co-mujahids in the Afghan jihad. However, the commonality between them ends there. Mufti Shakir is unabashedly Deobandi in his viewpoint, while Pir Saifur is a Barelvi. Shakir has majority Afridis as his followers, while Pir has a substantial following among some Afridi khels. The Pir's influence, however, extends into Punjab, NWFP and Karachi where he has a sizable following among the subalterns in the Pakistani army as well as bureaucrats in the civil administration. Reports reveal that on the 9th day of the 10th month of the Islamic calendar (Shawal), the Pir used to hold his durbar in Bara and more than 150,000 followers used to attend this.

    Coming back to the tussle at Bara, Mufti Shakir claimed that the Pir had been promoting a perverted version of Islam and in the true tradition of the religion such vice had to be prevented. After preaching continuously against the Pir, he asked the latter to leave Bara by December 25, 2005. The Mufti even formed a militant outfit called Lashkar-i-Islam to impose a Taliban style religious code in the area. His principal follower, Mangal Bagh, who claimed to be the amir of Lashkar-i-Islam, set upon himself the task of realising the dreams of his mentor by force and issued warnings to the Pir to move out of Bara. But the Pir refused to oblige. To prevent the situation from spiralling out of control, Pakistani authorities had to send in more than 1,000 troops from Bajaur Scouts, Mohmand Rifles, Mehsud Scouts and Khyber Rifles to maintain order.

    On January 31, 2006, the Khyber administration organised a jirga of Afridi sub-tribes to discuss the matter. The jirga decided to expel the Maulanas as they were not locals and had aggravated the security situation in Bara. The Pir obeyed the verdict and left Bara on February 1, reportedly for Lahore. Mufti Shakir, however, interpreted the Pir's exit as a grand victory and refused to leave Bara for quite some days. Finally, upon pressure from the administration, he too left towards the end of February reportedly for Tirah valley, where the Deobandi-Barelvi rivalry is peaking now. Subsequently, the jirga entrusted the task of maintaining security of the area to a tribal peacekeeping force, Tanzeem-e-Ittehad Ulema.

    But the sectarian temperature in the area refused to subside even after this. The Tanzeem faced serious attacks from Lashkar-i-Islami in early March 2006. On March 25, Lashkar followers led by Mangal destroyed the house of one of the Pir's followers. And on March 28, they attacked the house of the Pir's principal follower, Badshah Khan, and killed 19 supporters of the Pir, 16 of whom were Afghan nationals, and carried away women and children as hostage.

    The administration's response was quick. After one shot from the Frontier Corps aimed at the Mufti's headquarters in Nullah Khajori, which destroyed the antenna of the FM station on March 30, Mangal reportedly fled to Gugrini area on the hills near Jamrud to hide in the caves there. He re-launched his radio station and started spewing venom against the Barelvi-Pirano group. In true Taliban tradition, he urged men in the area to pray five times a day, grow beards and refrain from collaborating with the political authorities. He also imposed a ban on the interest-based loan system, declaring it un-Islamic.

    The efforts of the administration and the jirga to bring moderation into Mangal Bagh do not seem to have had any effect. By early May 2006, he was threatening the local administration that all routes to Tirah would be blocked, if his supporters, apprehended in April, were not released. He even persuaded the elders of the Zakhakhels - the largest sub-tribe among the Afridis - not to participate in the jirga in May. At the beginning of June, Mangal's men kidnapped a local Jamiat-Ulema-i-Islam leader from a mosque for allegedly cooperating with the administration. The Lashkar took control of the Bara bazaar on June 10. The administration responded on June 12 by blowing up of a four-storey shopping plaza owned by Mangal. The Khasadar force and Mehsood Scouts have since taken up the Bara bazaar under their control. But Mangal continues to remain defiant.

    This episode in Bara epitomises Pakistan's policy towards the local Taliban. The process of engendering sectarian hatred has been left untouched and the state has exhibited a sense of reluctance to rein in the Deobandi-Taliban elements, unless they become violent and challenge the writ of the state. Some analysts in Pakistan would argue that this is mainly because the administration is traditionally known for its sympathies towards such a puritanical viewpoint. The Barelvi viewpoint, which could perhaps provide a counter-force, stands marginalised. The authorities have also not tapped the new generation of local leadership, which wishes to get out of the tribal mould and mainstream itself. Instead, they have allowed the Deobandi strain to dominate the terrain, hoping to quarantine its influence in the tribal belt and buy peace in the bargain. However, the administration has ignored the inability of such groups to remain quiet and non-coercive. These groups have moreover repeatedly challenged the might of the state. In the absence of an imaginative plan to counter such an assertive ideology at the grassroots level, Pakistan will continue to labour under a million mutinies, which will increasingly weaken the capacity of the state in the days to come.